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What to do if you see sexual violence

It can be hard to know what to do if you see someone being sexually harassed or assaulted. Here are some tips to help.

Sexual violence and abuse is widespread in our society.

This means it's likely that we'll all witness someone being sexually harassed or assaulted at some point. And it’s even likelier that we’ll hear someone making sexist or inappropriate sexual comments or ‘jokes’.

Knowing what to do in these situations can be really hard. Often we feel frozen and unable to move or speak. We might worry about making the situation worse or putting ourselves in harm’s way. Or think that we should ‘mind our own business’ or not 'make a fuss’.

Sometimes, it’s not safe for us to get involved ourselves – especially if we are alone. However, in these situations, there might be a different way we can help or act instead.

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There are several reasons why we should try to intervene in sexual violence or call out inappropriate comments and behaviour:

  • To prevent victims or survivors from being further harmed – whether that’s physically, mentally or emotionally.
  • To show victims or survivors solidarity and let them know they are not alone and that other people care.
  • To show a perpetrator that what they are doing has not gone unnoticed and will not be accepted by other people.
  • To help end a culture where sexual violence is normalised, and where women and girls are seen as ‘less than’ men and boys.

But, it’s important to remember that sexual violence is ALWAYS the fault of the perpetrator or perpetrators. If you've seen sexual violence happening before and either couldn't or didn't act, please know that you are not to blame.

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Lots of people who witness sexual violence are also victims or survivors themselves. If this is something you’ve experienced, you can talk to us. At Rape Crisis we always listen and we never judge.

Find support after witnessing rape or sexual assault

How can you intervene in sexual violence?

Your safety is a priority and you should never put yourself at risk. So, before taking any action, pause, take a deep breath and assess the situation. As you do so, you could think about the following:

  • Is it safe to act?
  • Are you with other people or alone? If alone, are there other people close by who could help you?
  • What actions could you take that are unlikely to put anyone in harm’s way?

How you intervene will likely depend on the situation or what you feel safe or comfortable doing.

So, what are your options?

Bystander intervention: the 5Ds

Right To Be, an anti-harassment movement based in New York, has developed a bystander intervention guide called the ‘5Ds’. (A ‘bystander’ is someone who sees something happening but is not involved in it.) This lists different ways you can support someone who’s being targeted and/or make it clear that what’s happening is not okay.

The 5Ds are:

Distract

The aim here is to interrupt what is happening.

You could do this by:

  • Talking to a person being targeted about something that has nothing to do with the harassment or assault – for example, you could pretend to be lost and that you need directions, or pretend that you know them. 
  • Making a ‘scene’ – for example, spilling your drink, dropping something, making a loud noise.
  • Getting physically between a perpetrator and the person they are targeting.

Whatever option you take, you should try to ignore the perpetrator.

Delegate

This is when you ask someone else for help or to intervene instead of you.

This might be:

  • Someone in a position of authority – for example, a teacher, lecturer, bus or train driver, security guard or shop/bar/nightclub/restaurant manager.
  • Anyone else who works in the place where the incident is taking place.
  • A passer-by.
  • The emergency services.
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BEFORE you call 999, however, try to assess whether the person being targeted is in immediate danger. If they are then you should call straight away. If they're not, try to check with the person being targeted if this is something they want you to do. Some people may not be comfortable with the police or other emergency services getting involved. It may make them more upset or scared.

Delay

If you can’t – or don’t – act when an incident is taking place then you can still check in with the victim or survivor afterwards and offer to help.

This could make a huge difference to them so never think it’s too late to act.

You could try saying to them:

  • ‘Are you okay?’
  • ‘I’m sorry that happened to you.’
  • ‘What just happened wasn’t okay.’
  • ‘Can I do anything to help you?’
  • ‘Would you like me to call someone for you?’
  • ‘Can I stay with you or help you to get to where you were going?’
  • ‘If you’d like to report what happened to someone then I’m happy to tell them what I saw.’

Direct

This involves directly responding to what is happening.

That could mean calling out a perpetrator or person being sexist, naming what is happening or saying that it’s not okay.

For example, saying:

  • ‘That’s sexist.’
  • ‘That’s sexual harassment.’
  • ‘That’s sexual assault.’
  • ‘Stop what you’re doing – it’s not okay.’
  • ‘Leave them alone.’
  • ‘That wasn’t funny.’
  • ‘Do you think it’s okay to say that?’
  • ‘You can’t do that.’

It could also mean asking a person being targeted if they are okay or need help.

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It's important to know that direct intervention can be a risky tactic. This is because a perpetrator’s actions could get worse or they could also turn on you or others.

So, Right To Be suggests you should first assess the situation and see if you can answer yes to all of the following questions:

  • Are you physically safe?
  • Is the person being targeted physically safe?
  • Does it seem unlikely that the situation will escalate?
  • Can you tell if the person being targeted wants you to speak up?

If you do decide to directly intervene, you can try to reduce risk by:

  • Keeping what you say short, brief and accurate. Don’t exaggerate.
  • Not getting into a conversation or argument with the perpetrator.
  • Speaking in a calm voice and being polite.

Document

Documenting means recording what is happening – this could be by taking a video or photo/s on your phone or even by noting down details of an incident.

It can be useful for the person being targeted to have a record of what happened in case they want to report it to someone.

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However, this action should only be tried if someone else is already helping the person being targeted. If they’re not then try one of the other Ds first.

If you do document, it’s really important to make sure you always do the following:

  • Check with the person being targeted if they would like you to document what is happening. If they say ‘no’ then don’t do it.
  • Keep a safe distance.
  • Never publish video or photos of what happened or give them to someone else without the permission of the person being targeted. This includes never sharing them on social media or sending them to another person.

You should also try to:

  • Film or photograph street signs or landmarks that show the location.
  • Say or note down the day and time.

Getting help and support

Everyone responds differently to sexual violence and abuse – so whatever someone feels is a valid response. But for lots of people, it can have a long-lasting impact on their feelings and wellbeing. 

If you have experienced any form of sexual violence or abuse – whether it was recently or a long time ago – Rape Crisis is here for you. We will listen to you and believe you.